The best exercises for kids with cerebral palsy are the ones that your kid will actually want to do.
Cerebral palsy describes a spectrum of motor disabilities caused by damage to the brain before, during or shortly after birth.
It can be characterized by stiff movements, poor posture, and difficulties with balance and coordination.
Therefore, exercise is necessary to help lengthen tight muscles, increase range of motion and coordination, and improve overall mobility.
Due to their impaired movements, children with cerebral palsy tend to be less physically active, which increases their chances of developing health problems.
This article will go over some exercises and activities your child can do at home to be more active throughout the day.
How Much Exercise Do Kids with Cerebral Palsy Need?
It’s recommended that children with cerebral palsy aim to get at least 60 minutes of physical exercise, 5 days a week. Although this may sound like a lot, not all exercise has to be boring. Physical activities can be just as beneficial (or even more so) than rote exercises.
The best way to get specific exercise recommendations for your child’s unique condition is to speak with their physical or occupational therapist.
This will help ensure that all the right areas are targeted and optimize your child’s ability to improve.
Every case of cerebral palsy is different and each child will have varying recovery goals. Therefore, having an individualized exercise regimen will help cater to your child’s unique needs.
Range of Motion Exercises for Kids with Cerebral Palsy
Range of motion exercises should be practiced at least twice a day to reduce joint stiffness, promote circulation, and stimulate the muscles.
All kids with cerebral palsy can benefit from range of motion exercises.
Children with severe cerebral palsy should participate in passive range of motion exercises. These are when a trained caregiver or therapist moves the child’s body for them, which stimulates and stretches the muscles and prevents blood from pooling in the limbs due to inactivity.
When helping a child do passive range of motion exercises, be gentle and never force the body to move past its natural resistance. If your child says the exercises hurt or shows signs of being in pain, don’t try to push through it. Instead, only complete movements in their pain-free range.
Children that have muscle control should be encouraged to do range of motion exercises on their own as much as possible. These are called active range of motion exercises.
Some active range of motion exercises your child can practice include:
- Neck rotations (rotate the head in circles clockwise and counterclockwise)
- Head turns (turning the head side to side)
- Shoulder shrugs (raise and lower your shoulders)
- Arm circles (spread your arms to the sides so that your body makes a T shape and then move the arms in circles forward and backward)
- Elbow extensions (bend and straighten your elbows)
- Wrist rotations (hold your forearm with your other hand to stabilize it and then move the hand in circles)
- Finger clenching (make a fist so that all your fingers curl in and then straighten them back out)
- Finger parting (join your fingers together so that they touching on the sides and then spread them out as far as you can)
- Marches (sitting or standing, bend at the hip to raise your knee up like you’re marching, alternating legs)
- Lateral leg raises (lie on your side, raise your top leg up as far as you can, then lower it)
- Knee extensions (sit on a chair and repeatedly bend and straighten the knees)
- Ankle rotations (rotate the ankles in circles)
Fun Physical Activities for Exercise
Exercise doesn’t have to be boring.
In fact, the best way to get your child engaged and motivated to be more active is through play.
Let’s go over some fun physical activities your child can do for exercise.
Dancing is a great way to practice moving multiple parts of the body at once.
Children love songs with corresponding dance moves like the Cha Cha Slide, Head and Shoulder Knees and Toes, Hokey Pokey, and Macarena.
You can also play freeze dance! The rules are simple. When the music is on, you dance, but when it stops, you have to freeze! Whoever moves, loses.
The anticipation of waiting for the song to stop keeps the child engaged.
MusicGlove combines gaming, hand therapy, and music together to make improving fine motor skills fun.
The idea of the game is to make O’s with each of your fingers. The keys on the screen are synchronized to match the beats in the music.
Children are so engaged in the game that they don’t even realize how many repetitions they’re performing, which is key for promoting neuroplasticity and boosting hand function.
This is a great way to add some movement into your child’s day if they are more limited in their mobility.
Balloon in the Air (AKA Hot Lava)
This simple game is a great way to keep children with cerebral palsy moving around.
All you need is to do is keep a balloon (no helium) from touching the floor (or “hot lava”) at all costs.
While playing this game with your child, try to steer the balloon away from your child so that they must move around to get to it before it falls into the floor “lava”.
To make it more challenging, suggest things like, “How about we can only touch the balloon with our right hand, or feet?”
Getting into the pool is an excellent way for your child to practice walking and strengthen their muscles.
The buoyant force of water is what makes people feel so light in water. This will take a lot of pressure off the joints and allow your child to focus on walking with correct form.
Water also has viscosity, which is what makes it difficult to walk really fast in water. This natural resistance will help strengthen your child’s muscles.
There are all sorts of different exercises and activities your child can do in a pool.
They can hold onto a boogie board and kick their feet, balance on a pool noodle, practice walking, or even just splash around. As long as your child is moving, the properties of water can help improve motor function.
There are tons of adaptive sports for children with cerebral palsy to participate in.
Nearly every sport can be adapted to accommodate your child’s abilities.
This can help your child learn how to play with others, work towards their goals, and enjoy an active lifestyle.
To find an adaptive sports program near you, click [here].
Riding a bike is an effective way for children with cerebral palsy to develop more strength in their legs and break a sweat, boosting their cardiovascular function as well.
Having training wheels or even using a tricycle will help keep your child balanced and prevent falling.
Because pedals can generally only move in one direction, they will help guide your child’s movements. Pedals with straps can also help keep your child’s feet from sliding off.
Go to a Playground
Going to the park and letting your child play on the playground is an effortless way to get them to be more active.
They can use their muscles to climb, kick their legs back and forth on the swings, and run around. Some playgrounds have adaptive swings so even older children with balance difficulties are still able to swing. Playing on a playground is also great for children’s sensory systems!
Hide some items around the house and have your child go on a mini scavenger hunt looking for them.
Place the items in unexpected or hard to reach places that will have your child on their toes, knees, reaching, opening doors and cabinets, and moving objects around.
The Best Exercises for Kids with Cerebral Palsy
Ultimately, the best exercises for kids with cerebral palsy are the exercises that will keep them moving.
Forcing your child to go to physical therapy and perform manual exercise after exercise is only going to make them bored. However, of note, many pediatric physical therapists do try to integrate fun activities into their sessions, so don’t be afraid to encourage physical therapy when needed.
By encouraging your child to play around and do activities that they enjoy, they’ll naturally become more active.
The most important part of getting a child to exercise is to focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t.
By moving around and being active, kids with cerebral palsy can prevent the onset of pressure sores, decreased metabolic rate, muscle atrophy, and many other health problems.
Try these activities with your child and see for yourself how effortless it can be to keep them engaged and healthy.